• Published 5th May 2012
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The Grey Factor - Japko



Mystery and adventure, Now with books!

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Chapter Five

THE GREY FACTOR
(By Japko)
Chapter Five

On the fifth day, another pony entered the town, and all the voices silenced at once. His coat was as grey as clouds on a rainy day, and his mane silver as mercury. He would shout for the wayfarers to come out, but they only silently trembled inside the tavern. He knew where they were and he shouted again, but the terrified ponies did not comply.
And that’s when the bad things started.
Equestrian legends: Dawnstrike


It took them a long while before they dared to move, and even longer before either of them spoke.

“What is this place?” Jade rubbed his forehead. The decompression after the spell dissipation had caught him off guard, and he still had problems with understanding things. His vision blurred, and both eyes perceived different colors.

Twilight was still breathing heavily. She hadn’t been so exhausted in her entire life. And never had she encountered a situation in which she would have to use all the reserves of her magical power. For the first time, she felt utterly helpless. Pegasi could always count on their wings, and earth ponies on their physical strength. She felt like a little foal.

She took a look around. They were in a small, dome-shaped cavern. Long, sharp crystals grew densely on the walls, filling the chamber with a delicate pink glow, giving the whole place a bit of an ethereal impression. Everything was so quiet that she could hear the beating of her own heart.

“I think I’ve been here before…” she said faintly.

“I had no idea a place like this existed below Canterlot.” The professor stood up and approached one of the crystal clusters. He poked it with his hoof and it responded with a resonating low sound. Also, for a short while, it shone a bit stronger, sending a cascading impulse to its neighbors. He reached to one larger crystal and, without any bigger effort, broke it away from the rest. Unfortunately, it crumbled into glittering dust in a moment. “So much for a torch,” he muttered to himself.

Meanwhile, Twilight tried to stand up. After a few minutes of rest, her bad shoulder’s pain answered with double strength. She hissed reflexively.

That drew Jade’s attention. “You’re hurt!” he exclaimed, trotting towards her.

“I’m out of my magic. I can’t do anything with it” Twilight looked critically at her swollen shoulder and poked it a couple times with her other hoof. The bone didn’t seem to be cracked, but it was at least bruised very hard.

“What if I shared some of mine with you?” Jade asked, offering his horn by bowing down his head towards her.

“I’m not the best in healing magic. I’m not sure if I could even start a weave by channeling.” She bit her lip. “I can try, but there’s a risk that a lot of your energy will go to waste if the spell fails, and we don’t even know what’s ahead of us.”

The blue unicorn shook his head. “If you’re unable to walk, we won’t be able to do anything, basically. You have to try.”

Twilight nodded.

Their horns lit up at the same time. Blue and purple streams of magic swirled together above their heads. The flow was chaotic, though. Some of the trails went into different directions and dissipated into the air. They didn’t mix perfectly before meeting the wounded spot either, but the swelling seemed to be getting a little bit smaller. Eventually, the energy cloud faded. Twilight hung her head down, breathing heavily.

“That’s all I could do,” she said. “It’s not healed but at least partly desensitized. Let me catch my breath for a while, then let’s get going before the effect wears off.”

“What happened anyway?” Jade sat beside her. “What hurt you? Or who?”

“We’ll get to that.” She tried to make some complex moves with her hurt foreleg, and with a relief she decided she would be able to walk without having to spare it too much. “What in the world was the thing that surprised me back there in Celestia’s room? One second I was just standing there, and then suddenly everything went dark and our connection broke.”

The professor scratched his head for a while. “Honestly? I think that was a simple dimensional trap. Not a very fancy thing and sometimes dangerous, but well… if someone sets up a trap, they rarely care about the target’s safety.”

“What’s a dimensional trap? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it before.”

“I bet you haven’t.” Jade smirked. “If you had, maybe you would be able to figure a way out.

“The idea is simple,” he started after a while. “I think you know how higher dimensions of hyperspace work. When you imagine a potential two-dimensional being and put it on a spherical, three-dimensional object, it will still perceive it as a two-dimensional world. And if you don’t provide it with any kind of marker to place anywhere, the being will think that it’s on an infinite plane. You were sent into a small… pocket of four-dimensional hyperspace. I can tell it, because you saw my helper as a two-dimensional circle.”

“So let me guess: it was, in fact, a sphere?” The purple unicorn described a ball in the air. “By the way, I think we can get going.” She pointed to a narrow, irregular corridor between the crystals.

“Correct.” Jade stood up. “It was something I call a hacking drone. Since I have no control over the trap spell, I can’t influence anything that is inside. That’s why our telepathic link got destroyed too. For a while I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Luckily, my guess was correct and the hacking drone worked. You see, the dimensional trap always has its boundaries in our three-dimensional world. Logically, it would be no more and no less than the room. What my spell does is find an optimal exit and form a…” He stopped, trying to find a proper word. “Let’s call it a bridge.”

They squeezed through the forest of crystalline stalagmites and eventually entered a large cave. Its walls were also made of glassy and colorful stones, but they wouldn’t glow anymore. Jade lit his horn up with a light spell. The ceiling flickered high with a few weak reflections.

“Didn’t you say you’d been here before?” The blue unicorn looked around.

“I think so…” Twilight took a few steps forward. “Not so long ago I got trapped in some caves below Canterlot by the Changeling Queen. My sister-in-law spent a lot of time being imprisoned somewhere behind these jeweled walls, but together we managed to find a way out. I think these corridors are connected to those.”

Jade walked towards a cave wall and poked the gems a couple times. They didn’t respond this time. “Why isn’t it developed?”

“The Queen told me it used to be a mine of some sort, but someone or something must have made the miners abandon it. I hope there aren’t any deadly surprises on our way.”

They started walking again. At the end of the cavern they found three different corridors. They chose the left one, following the universal rule of labyrinths.

“What keeps bugging me,” Twilight spoke, jumping over a stone threshold, “is this: how did you manage that interdimensional bridge? It’s not something I’ve ever heard of either.”

The stallion laughed. “It doesn’t surprise me at all. I am the author of the spell. You see,” he said, stopping and turning towards her, “I need to tell you something. While my major is equinology, it’s not my… only field of interest. After hours I prefer to develop a slightly different kind of magic. Security breaking.”

“I have never thought something like that even existed. Now that you mention it, though…”

“It’s not entirely… legal, you know. It’s not a thing they teach foals in schools. I’m not an expert, but the hacking drone was a discovery that established my position among my colleagues, if you know what I mean.”

“But what happens to ponies that move through that bridge?” Twilight looked at her hurt shoulder. “Something bucked me hard back there. Really hard. It’s a miracle that the bone isn’t broken.”

“To be honest, I don’t think anything hit you at all.” The blue pony rubbed his chin. “As I said before, the first thing a drone does is look for a convenient exit in the three-dimensional world. In our case it had to be the balcony door, since all the windows and the main entrance to the room were closed. Jumping out, you probably materialized in a spot near the balcony railing. Luckily, you only hooked it with your shoulder.”

“So I just jumped out of the tallest tower of Canterlot?” She felt cold crawling into her stomach. “If you weren’t there…”

“And if you weren’t there afterwards, we would have been caught by the guards in the sewers, so we are even. Speaking of which, you really scared me back there. For a while I was sure you’d left me…”

“I’m sorry,” Twilight chuckled. “I had to check if there’s space for us to hide on the other side. There was no time for explanations.”

As they walked ahead, the corridors slowly began to get more regular. The higher ones even had reinforcements and the floors were flatter. The biggest problem was guessing whether they were moving higher or lower. The slopes were insignificant, but they changed all the time. Eventually, the amount of naked crystals on the walls dropped to zero, and soon they were walking through simple stone corridors. Somewhere further away, water was flowing with a quiet whisper.

“Too bad everything was for nothing,” Jade sighed. “We risked a lot to get any information, but we return with empty hooves.”

“Not exactly,” Twilight said. “I did manage to find some evidence just before the spell hit me.”

“And now you’re telling me?!”

“I’m still not sure what some of those things meant though. But the info I did get wasn’t good news at all.” She took a deep breath. “What I’ve found was a big book filled with tables. It looked like a research journal, in which Celestia carefully noted some information about every clone she created, or at least that’s what I think it was. And…” She slowly shook her head. “It’s not just the fact that she made those clones. The journal… it must have carried data of tens, maybe a hundred years! And from what I saw there, none of the clones made it. Thousands of lives thrown into trash… it hurts to even think about it…”

“But if all the subjects died,” Jade mused, “how do we have the clone guards all around us?”

“The record stopped at some point. The last filled page was closed with a note that said that something – I’m not sure what – continued somewhere else since the year 794. It said MMSU4, if I recall it correctly.”

The stallion’s pace froze. “MMSU4? MMSU? That rings a bell.”

“Do you have any idea what it might mean?” Twilight brightened up.

“I’m pretty sure I have heard about it. It’s an abbreviation, so it might mean something completely different, but still…”

Eventually, the unicorns found what seemed to be a main tunnel. In the middle of it there run a rusty old railway. The rippling of water was louder, but it was still impossible to locate which direction it came from. They agreed to follow the railway, since it had to lead somewhere.

“I’m pretty sure we’re getting closer to the place where Cadance and I found the exit. Although, that one led to the castle, and I wouldn’t want to end up in the castle’s courtyard after all this.” The adrenaline just then began to run out and Twilight suddenly felt how extremely tired she was. She was hungry, thirsty, exhausted, magically depleted and hurt. The pain in her shoulder was very mild thanks to the spell, but the knowledge about its state was irritating like a papercut. All in all, she just wanted to go home.

“What’s this?” Jade stopped by a little lever sticking out of the ground by the rail.

“Looks like a simple point switch to me.” Twilight shrugged.

“It would look like one if there was any point in sight, don’t you think?”

“I think we sh-” She stopped when the stallion pulled the lever. Something grated slowly and loudly. Before their eyes a solid part of the wall slowly moved aside, forming a narrow but tall entrance.

The unicorns looked at each other.

Twilight sighed. “Why not…”

A delicate wind swept their faces as they stepped in. The corridor was straight as an arrow, and both ends disappeared in the far darkness. As Professor Jade passed the entrance, it suddenly shut, almost slamming on his tail. He turned around, startled. “I hope this was a good idea,” he said, feeling the solid rock, where a second ago there was a hole. Resigned, he took a step back. A stone yielded softly under his hoof with a quiet click. From the depths of the tunnel they could hear a muffled rumble. The blue pony’s eyes widened.

“Have you read Daring Do, Professor?" Twilight stared at the little hole in the ground.

“You’ve got to be kidding me…”

“Run!”

They both turned tail and fled into the darkness, too scared to look back. The sinister, silent echo of the rolling boulder curdled blood in their veins. The corridor had no turns; it felt like it was going to infinity. Twilight’s brain, for the first time in her life, was filled with pure panic. All her thoughts faded away, leaving space for only one, primal instinct – to run for her life. Her legs moved on her own, her lungs desperately caught air. Faster, faster! the voice in her head screamed. She could feel the huge stone ball getting closer and closer; the terrifying sound louder and more vivid with each passing second.

It’s over. I’ll die here, she thought. She could almost feel the rock brushing against her tail.

Her consciousness didn’t notice the edge. Her body moved on its own. Twilight jumped into the darkness. Her front leg burned with pain and she already knew that she wouldn’t make it. Jade easily flew beside her, as she slowly lost her momentum. The gravity started to ruthlessly pull her down. She stretched her front legs to prevent herself from crashing into a wall and immediately felt another strike of pain when they absorbed the hit.

After a few incredibly long split seconds she realized she was hanging in the air. She opened her eyes and saw a light, ice-blue aura surrounding her body. Jade kneeled above, reaching his hoof towards her. She grabbed him and, finding an inset in the rock, used it to push herself upwards as strong as she could.

A second later the heavy stone boulder hit the spot where she had hung and splashed loudly in the water below, sprinkling both ponies with tiny drops.

Professor Jade raised his head. The mare before him was shaking, her irises slowly turning from lavender to orange.

“What… the… FUCK!” she screamed.

The stallion took a step back. Twilight exploded, literally. With a flash of light, her coat drained of color, and her mane and tail turned into flames. “First, dimensional traps. Then, pursuits in the sewers. But this! This…” She staggered. The fire expired and her coat turned purple again. Her knees bent under her weight.

Twilight fell on the ground and fainted.

* * *

She was woken up by a quiet buzz. Her consciousness returned with slow, accumulating waves. And along with it came pain. Every muscle on her body screamed, even if she wasn’t moving. Her horn tingled. As long as she didn’t provide herself with anything to gain physical energy from, her magic pool would also remain dry. The lack of any magical strength for longer than a few hours wasn’t healthy for a unicorn.

Fighting down the headache, Twilight Sparkle opened her eyes. She was still in the strange cave. Her head rested on something soft – her saddlebags. It must have been Jade who had put her in this relatively comfortable position. Now, he was doing… something. He sat still, turned sideways to her, his horn slightly lit up. His eyes were blurry, and he noiselessly murmured something to himself.

She tried to stand up, but her legs protested midway through and she fell, cursing quietly.

“Lay still, Miss Sparkle.” Jade remained in the same position, not even looking towards her. “I’ll talk to you in a sec.”

Twilight obeyed. She hadn’t the slightest idea what the stallion was doing. The weak glow of his aura fell on solid stone walls surrounding the dead end they were in. She hoped there was some exit back in the direction they came from. Otherwise, they had a problem.

Eventually, the professor’s horn faded and he stood up, groaning. He had to be tired and sore as well. “I’ve got some good news and bad news.” He approached her in the darkness. “Forgive me for not giving us light but I want to preserve all the magic I have left. Anyway, the good news is that this cave is not a dead end as you probably thought. There are at least two hidden doors there. The bad news is I have some problems opening them. More good news is I remembered what MMSU stands for.”

“Okay,” Twilight replied with a weak voice. “So first, tell me what MMSU means. It’s been niggling at me.”

“If my deduction is correct, the note in the book you read wasn’t information about any change in the research after all. It meant Celestia had decided to keep the data someplace else. In a Magical Mass Storage unit.”

“A what now?”

“It’s a luxurious device,” Jade explained. “We have one at our university. It lets you record the data inside it instead of writing it on paper. It also makes it easier to access and to keep it organized.”

“Great. Maybe if we make it out of here alive, we will find it someday.” She buried her face back in the soft saddlebags.

The stallion chuckled. “That would be a waste of a big opportunity, Miss Sparkle. What if I told you one of these secret doors has small, almost impossible to notice, letters MMSU engraved just above the floor?”

“… You’re kidding.”

“I’m totally serious. It seems that by accident we’ve found a thing we didn’t even know we were looking for.”
For a long time none of them said anything. The only thing that could be heard was the whisper of a river flowing below them.

“You’ve managed to burn all your physical and magical energy,” the professor said in the darkness. “Also, I bet the after-adrenaline hangover must have kicked in already as well. Rest for now. You should be able to move again soon. I’m not sure about your shoulder though. I’m afraid I don’t have much magic to spare.”

“What are you going to do?” Twilight tried to find a comfortable position.

“The thing I do best. Hack the door.”

“How?”

“Oh, there is a password. Shouldn’t be a problem if I don’t run out of magic. Too bad we haven’t packed any snacks.” Whistling, he walked away.

The blue glow once again lit up the darkness. After a few minutes it faded again.

“It doesn’t seem too hard.” The stallion sighed. “But I have to be extremely thrifty. So far I know it consists of two words, one trisyllabic, the second disyllabic. I know the first one starts with a voiced consonant and the other with its voiceless equivalent. Probably B and P. Also, I’m pretty sure the second one is plural.”

Twilight furrowed her brow. “If someone put a password on this door, it shouldn’t be anyone else than Celestia herself, don’t you think?”

“Yes, why do you ask?”

“I wonder…” she hesitated for a while. “How about… blueberry pancakes?”

“What do you mean-” Jade’s voice was suddenly drowned out by a hollow buzz. Instinctively, the stallion activated a light spell. Before their eyes, the stone wall became translucent and eventually vanished, leaving a circular hole.

Jade’s jaw dropped.

“What do you know.” Twilight shrugged. “I’m not the only one who uses her favorite food as password.”

“Really?” Professor Jade trotted towards the purple unicorn and helped her stand up. “The royal deepest secrets are guarded by blueberry pancakes? The princess sure has a sense of humor.”

Slowly, the unicorns passed through the hole. The pain in Twilight’s shoulder didn’t let her move her leg, so she had to rely on the stallion. The space they stepped in was filled with still, warm air and lit up by a few stains of dark red light here and there. As the professor put more energy into his magic light, it turned out they were in an elliptic room with a few niches, each curtained with thick and heavy black veils. They didn’t cover the entire holes so some of the red light escaped through, falling on the walls and floor.

“You mentioned the MMSU number was four, right?” Jade asked, pointing to one of the numbers drawn by the niches. “I guess this is the one that will give us the answers we seek.”

He helped her across the room and put the curtain away. What they found inside the hole was something that looked like a holographic image. It looked like a tetrahedron, though it floated upside down and glowed red. The device spun slowly and released a very quiet and very low whirr.

“How do you use it?” Twilight was awestruck. She had never seen anything like it before. She wanted to touch it, but the unit looked so fragile that she was afraid it would shatter to pieces if she did.

“It might be difficult for a beginner.” Jade sent a magical impulse towards the device. “Luckily, I’ve played with one like this before. I’m afraid you’ll have to rely on me to extract the data from this thing. Oh, how nice,” he added, when the impulse returned to his horn. “It’s not even protected. Now let’s go.”

In a short while the tetrahedron shone with strong red light, and the professor’s eyes filled with the same color.

“It says ‘Project Orphan’. Does that mean anything?”

“Yes, the book was titled with the exact same words.” She sat by the wall, watching the red device spin faster.

“The starting date is the year 794… The data charts create a long list. Every subject deceased thus far…” The stallion was making lots of strange moves with his hoof as he spoke. “Oh, there’s a note! First success is U936/05 with nu. CV15. Subject complete. There’s a reference link, I’ll check it in a while.” He went silent for some time.

“From there,” he continued, “we get a mix of deceased and complete, and… hmm, the U1015/01 is strange. Bolded text and a few reference lin-”

“Shh!” Twilight hissed suddenly. She heard something.

Jade closed his mouth and turned the device off. His eyes went back to normal.

From outside the entrance, slow hoofsteps could be heard.

“Quick!” Twilight whispered. “Where’s the exit?”

The professor looked at her, terrified. “There is no exit. The only way out…”

The hoofsteps became louder.

Twilight slowly turned her head to the stallion. “… is the entrance we came in.”

The steps stopped. Someone was just outside the hole.

“We’re screwed,” the professor moaned. “We’re so, so screwed.”

Slowly, a gently swirling waterfall of pastel colors flowed into the chamber. And along with it, a tall, white alicorn stepped inside. The long, twisted horn almost reached the ceiling and the sun image on the pony’s flank seemed to shine in the dimness.

Princess Celestia opened her lavender eyes.

“Twilight Sparkle, my faithful student. It seems I was right to suspect you. I have not met many ponies that could compete with your tenaciousness.”

The unicorns stood silent, not daring to speak.

“I’m impressed how far you were able to reach in this. Breaking into my room, escaping my trap, escaping my guards, and finally, finding my data base. Who would have guessed?”

“I can’t believe it…” Twilight whispered.

“What was that?” Celestia craned her neck.

“I can’t believe it!” The purple unicorn shouted. “All of this, the experiments, secrets and lies… And I trusted you… you monster!” She spat venomously.

“Don’t cross the line, Twilight. It’s easy to jump into conclusions when you have evidence like this.” The alicorn raised her hoof. “You think you know everything but all you can see is the tip of the iceberg.”

“We know enough.” Twilight felt the adrenaline filling up her veins again and burning in her heart. She could feel flames forming on tips of her hair. “We’ve seen through your Project Orphan. We know the results of your terrible experiments!”

The princess sighed. “I can’t even be sure how much you have actually found out. In fact, you can ask. You already know too much anyway.”

“And then what?” The purple unicorn’s eyes narrowed. “You’re going to kill us?”

Celestia took a step back like she was just hit in the face. “Kill you? Kill you? How… how could you!” She spread her wings and stepped forward again. “I am your princess. I am the protector of this land who took care of ponies for thousands of years! I bring the sun out every morning. I give ponies peace and safety. I took you under my wings and raised you like a daughter. I taught you everything you know…” Her eyes flickered with tears. “I set you up with a new home with your friends and gave everything in my power to make you happy… And you’re accusing me of will to kill you?”

Twilight stood by the wall with her mouth open, unable to say a word.

“Is that what you think of your princess? Is one secret enough to picture me as a tyrant who gets rid of inconvenient witnesses?” The alicorn hung her head.

“Be that as it may,” Twilight spoke eventually, “all this doesn’t change the fact that you played with the lives of thousands of unborn ponies. You can’t say what you did was compatible with any moral standards, and you can’t expect me to act like nothing happened!”

“You’re right, I can’t. But I never claimed it was morally correct.” Celestia’s voice was soft and quiet. “Over the hundreds of years I’ve grown almost indifferent, but… trust me, it wasn’t easy for me either.”

“But why?” Professor Jade spoke for the first time. “What made you do something as horrifying as this kind of a genetic experiment on such a large scale?”

“I will answer your questions.” The alicorn raised her head. “But first, you have to answer one. How did you even find out about this?”

Twilight opened her mouth, but she immediately closed it. She nodded at the stallion; his horn lit up and he magically lifted the book out of her saddlebags. He passed it to Celestia.

“Open to page 76,” Twilight said.

“Duskwind, I see…” the princess nodded. “I thought I got rid of all of his books. Sparks and Feathers? I’m guessing this is not your note, is it?”

The purple mare shook her head.

“Then someone must have found the truth before you.”

“The book was sent to me anonymously.” Twilight did not let her eyes off the princess.

“I see…” Celestia mused. “But who could have done it?”

“I did.”

Suddenly, a new pony stepped through the entrance. Her eyes shone with a deep teal in the dim light, and her mane sparkled with the stars of the midnight sky.